A marriage made in division

In December Pita Sharples characterised negotiations between John Key and the iwi leadership group as the marrying of two worldviews and two political systems, the Maori political system and the general political system. Ponder that this coming Waitangi Day.

Sharples was combining the Treaty of Waitangi’s two modern messages: one of unity and the other of separateness. As the Treaty’s truth and reconciliation phase begins to wind down with the settling of historical grievances, those two messages will need rebalancing if the Treaty is henceforth to be a nation-defining force.

During its truth and reconciliation phase the Treaty necessarily has been a separating instrument if politicians and the public were (are) to be brought to see that injustices had been done and needed to be undone. Those injustices were couched as breaches of article 2, which guaranteed to iwi and hapu autonomy in their affairs and over their assets.

Over the past 20 years the Treaty has evolved.

One evolution has been in setting twenty-first century boundaries between what constitute the assets and affairs of iwi and hapu and what constitute the general public interest and ownership. That was the core of the foreshore and seabed standoff. It is at the heart of the water talks.

A second way some have extended the Treaty is to claim it is between Maori and the “Crown” and thereby claim distinct treatment for Maori. It is now common to insist the “Crown” has a Treaty duty to lift Maori educational, health, housing and socioeconomic status.

The Treaty was not with Maori. It was with individual iwi and hapu. The iwi leadership group recognises this when it says that nothing it negotiates on water can bind individual iwi, who have exclusive tribal authority within their catchments. Deals will be done individually, not nationally. That is the Maori political system Sharples talked of.

No group that is not iwi or hapu has standing under the Treaty, except to the extent decisions by governments or the courts have accorded standing and that is a construct, not an automatic right.

Individual Maori do have standing under the Treaty — but no more standing than all individuals have. That is under article 3 which made Maori full “subjects” of Queen Victoria.

We now call “subjects” “citizens”. And the modern concept of citizenship connotes full participation in society, which implies state-guaranteed action such as education, health care and other assistance to reduce inequalities of opportunity.

Moreover, the modern concept of that action includes ensuring assistance works. That implies sensitivity to cultural and other differences, which in turn includes understanding and working with different worldviews. That is the genesis of and mandate for Tariana Turia’s whanau ora project.

But this is a long way from the separateness of worldviews and political systems Sharples spoke about. And it is a long way from the necessary anger which highlighted separateness in order to bring the majority to truth and reconciliation, an anger which at times bubbles up through Sharples’ more commonly visible affability.

And it doesn’t depend on the Treaty.

Which is just as well because the Treaty hangs on a fiction.

The Treaty is, of course, real: an actual historical document, a legal reality constructed by legislation and court decisions, a moral reality accepted by the political elite and a large portion of the population and a political reality, acted on by governments and visible in the Maori party’s presence in Parliament. A demographic reality, the rising proportion Maori form of the population, adds weight.

But the Treaty is also a fiction, a court-created fiction of “partnership” imputing a duty on a fictional “Crown” to “partner” iwi. Parliament could renege on that partnership if it chose.

The “Crown” is in practice the government: Key, his ministers (including Sharples and Turia) and officials (and the Governor-General, for ceremony and as a putative constitutional backstop). Just how fictional the “Crown” is would become obvious if we became a republic.

But that is a sideshow. If the Treaty is to be constructive in national life henceforth it will be because the emphasis shifts from separateness to unity and from rights to development. There are some forces driving such a shift.

One is the accumulation of assets by iwi as a result of settlements. That is making them real commercial forces.

Another is the rise of the Maori middle class, which is strengthening iwi governance and will in time change their nature. Pre-1840 protocols don’t fit the 2100s.

A third is the “normalisation” of te reo, some aspects of culture and Maori ceremonial custom. As Maori words are used more by non-Maori and by modern Maori, they will acquire new overtones and meanings. Modern Maori art bends tradition.

A fourth force is the growing assumption by those who cannot claim Maori whakapapa that they are indigenous here, as Maori are. Just as article 3 presumes.